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Safety: Midway water rescue teams prepare for summer

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

If there is one rule about rescuing a swimmer in the ocean, it’s don’t become a victim yourself.

“When someone is in survival mode, no one’s thinking logically. They do what they think could help them stay out of the water,” Midway Fire and Rescue water rescue instructor Patrick Moses told a group of firefighters undergoing training at North Litchfield last week.

That’s why Midway Fire and Rescue personnel do not wear life jackets when they run through the surf to rescue swimmers in distress in the ocean. A panicked swimmer would grab the rescuer’s life jacket and pull him under the water.

Moses demonstrated rescue cans, rescue tubes and two new long boards that will be used in ocean operations this summer by Midway, in addition to its Sea Doo and boats. An experienced lifeguard and surfer, Moses prefers the old hard plastic rescue can to the new soft plastic rescue tube but said he’s becoming a fan of the tube because of its versatility. It can be wrapped around a victim’s waist and buckled like a belt and give more flotation to someone with head, neck or back injuries. But the tube can’t keep a panicked swimmer from grabbing someone trying to rescue him. Moses demonstrated how to use the can to rescue a panicked swimmer in distress. “The slightest tap with the nose of this in the sternum causes enough discomfort to make them let go,” Moses said. If a victim wants to grab the flotation device, let him, Moses said. “A lot of times they try and sit on it, climb on it, all kinds of crazy things to get their head further out of the water,” he said. “You are going to have to explain to them — it will be hard because they are not listening — to just hang on it.”

All firefighters at Midway are trained in ocean and river rescue, said Division Chief James Payne. “We get a lot of responses where someone sees something in the water,” he said. “That’s our job to assess the situation. It might be a float. We go out and investigate to be sure it’s not a person. It’s getting closer to the summer season and schools letting out. This is our time to continue training.”

Payne has been at Midway as special operations and training chief for 10 weeks after serving 28 years in the Baltimore Fire Department. His background is in special operations, water, dive and beach rescues and working in confined spaces.

Payne and Moses had trainees swim into the ocean to start a lesson on the effects of the surf. “There’s always a current pushing or pulling against you,” Moses said. “You can’t necessarily swim with your face down in the water. You need to swim where you keep visual contact and know where your victim is. You could be going in the wrong direction if you lose your point of origin.”

He advised the trainees to begin swimming as soon as they reached waist-deep water — it’s faster than running — and to go under waves rather than allow them to kill momentum. Rip currents are the biggest hazard to swimmers.

“Use the currents to your advantage,” he said. “If they are in the water 50 yards out and caught up in a sweep, enter the ocean well ahead of him so he comes to you. Run down the beach before you enter the ocean. All I have to do is turn with the current and I will be to him in two seconds.”

Dangers at Pawleys Island are the pier and groins. Moses said to position the rescue can between the victim and the hard surfaces. “A lot of guys use themselves as the buffer,” he said, “but when you do that you are exposing yourself to the danger of becoming unconscious or hurt and now you are in just as much trouble as the victim. It sounds horrible, but if for some reason you don’t have one of the tools, remember to place the victim between you and what you are about to hit. You can’t help them if you are hurt too.”

The new long boards are the safest way to bring swimmers to shore, Moses said. “Once a victim is on the board, the emergency is over,” he said. “Take your time and paddle to shore.”

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